Wood was used during the Neolithic period; concrete came during the rules of ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire; and, iron and steel took over during the Industrial Revolution. However, using these materials has led the building sector to account for almost 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Now, we enter the era of grass.
With a goal to put the world in balance with nature, the people behind an Oxford, North Carolina-based company called Plantd realized that “we have to deliver an end product to a customer that totally delights that customer in terms of performance, in terms of price, and in terms of ease of installation,” in the words of co-founder and CEO Josh Dorfman.
The other co-founders, CTO Huade Tan and COO Nathan Silvernail worked at Elon Musk-founded SpaceX together for multiple years. There, they created the system for recycling water and air to keep astronauts alive aboard the Dragon, the first spacecraft under private ownership to ferry people to the International Space Station. Dorfman explains that for his co-founders, it was then “a logical leap to think about solving the chemical equation to keep 8 billion humans alive on earth.”
They began working on carbon capture solutions while Dorfman was building his second sustainable furniture company, Simbly, where he was having trouble sourcing affordable, good-quality wood that had been certified as such by Forest Stewardship Council.
That got him interested in a construction materials alternative. Upon meeting, they merged their passions to create Plantd.
After experimenting with different plants, the trio settled on a perennial grass that grows 20 to 30 feet per year with few inputs and can be harvested three times in an annual cycle; “unlike trees used for engineered wood products which are harvested after growing for 10–12 years, our biomass regrows and is harvested every year from the same acreage,” Dorfman explains. Plus, the grasses require nine times less land than trees: that’s approximately 15,000 acres instead of the 140,000 needed for a mid-sized mill producing oriented strand boards.
The team is building what it calls “the factory of the future” to turn this blend of grasses into structural panels perfect for the floors, walls, and roofs of buildings. Featuring completely automated and electric equipment that uses heat and pressure to remove the fiber from the plants and turn it into panels, the factory will feature no smokestacks and contribute no pollution to the community. Compared to the giant factories used to produce wood panels, this is a relatively low maintenance process, explains Tan: “Our production process will be a machine you can put into a building, like an Amazon warehouse, or any warehouse. So essentially, it’s like installing a printer and plugging it in, and you have an OSB factory, effectively.”
In addition to these production efficiency measures, because the grass itself absorbs atmospheric carbon through its growth and the panels retain 80 percent of that, they are carbon-negative. The homes built with those panels are therefore on the front lines in fighting the climate crisis.
Builders will enjoy multiple benefits from the Plantd Structural Panels™.
The grass-based products can be produced at the same price or less than those made of trees. They are lighter, as well as more durable and moisture resistant, offering key performance advantages.
Fewer panels are needed for each building, which brings cost savings and fewer thermal gaps. “Builders seeking to comply with more stringent energy efficiency standards or obtain tax credits for building Energy Star-rated homes will gravitate toward our products,” says Dorfman.
In January, Plantd announced that it had raised $10 million in a Series A round led by American Family Ventures, in which IDEA Fund Partners participated. That brings the company’s total funding to $13.6 million, with prior investors including Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter, and Chris Kemper, the CEO of Palmetto Solar.
The new influx will be used to build the modular press that will churn out the panels and to extend Plantd’s agricultural supply chain, featuring local farmers in North Carolina who are trying to move away from tobacco production. “Here in North Carolina, it’s tobacco country. And tobacco farmers don’t want to grow tobacco anymore,” according to Dorfman. Sourcing from the local area simultaneously cuts transportation-related emissions and costs. With operations based in what is known as the Research Triangle, the region offered everything they could have wanted: “a talented workforce, a massively growing housing industry, and access to millions of acres of farmland,” he reflects. Farmers will begin growing the grass this year.
The team is more than prepared for this next step. They have already received support from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which was instrumental in helping them get up and running. While the company will put its initial focus on the four-by-eight panels, the technology could expand into churning out materials of other sizes and thicknesses. Most importantly, Dorfman and the Plantd team see a bright future ahead: “Most people think that to solve climate change we need a scarcity mentality. We believe the opposite is true. We believe the future is going to be abundant. With Plantd, the way to solve climate change is to build more, not less, because every new home and building is an opportunity to lock away atmospheric carbon.”